When it comes to the Christmas story, people usually remember the shepherds, the angels, Mary (who seems to always be in the color blue for whatever reason), baby Jesus in the manger, and the animals, even though animals are not mentioned in the account. They remember the star and the three wise men, even though we have no idea how many wise men there were because it never says in Scripture, and the magi most likely came nearly two years later where they met Jesus in a house. Yet we always seem to forget one individual, even though he arguably played the most important role in the life of Jesus.
Joseph tends to be the forgotten one–and this is a tragedy. We focus on God’s choice of Mary, but we cannot forget that Joseph was chosen by God as well. Joseph’s responsibility in the life of Christ was enormous. Joseph should never be the forgotten one in the story. His purpose in Jesus’ life was too great. His influence on Jesus would be immense, for Jesus was his responsibility.
In Matthew 1:19 we see one of the reasons God chose Joseph to be the adopted father of the Messiah–his character. “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily (or secretly).” He was “a just man.” The word “just” means he was innocent, holy, and righteous. This does not mean he was sinless. This does mean he believed in God and in His word. He was considered righteous because he had faith in God. Joseph’s faith in God and his obedience to the Word of God was vitally important. He was going to raise the Messiah. Would God let an unbeliever be the main influence in His Son’s life?
By abiding by the Law, he knew there were repercussions for sin. By being just, he knew there was a penalty for the violation of God’s Law. Yet, he was also merciful. He showed mercy because he did not want “to make her a public example,” and “was minded to put her away secretly.” Because Mary was found with child, it was assumed she was unfaithful. If Joseph were to marry her, the popular opinion would be the child was his; therefore, his reputation would be tarnished as well. He determined that a divorce was necessary. This was the only way to dissolve the betrothal. Even though he was planning to divorce her, he had two options. He could have brought her before the people and publicly divorced her, bringing upon her open shame. He was a just man, and he knew the prescribed course of action by the Law–according to Deuteronomy 22:23-24–was stoning. The system had become rather lax, and stoning was not usual in first century. Although rare, it was still a possibility. But Joseph did not want to subject Mary to that. He was just (therefore he had to act), but because of his mercy, he chose another option. Deuteronomy 24:1 allowed for a legal, written divorce. This would have been done privately, avoiding the public disgrace. This was the option he chose.
He was just and merciful. He knew there had to be consequences for sin, he was not going to look over it or ignore it, yet he wanted to be merciful to the one he loved. The course of action he chose to take encompassed both aspects of justice and mercy. Joseph had come to a conclusion, but he came to this conclusion, not in a rash manner, but in a manner which gives us another example of his character–he was thoughtful.
Verse 20 states, “But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” What he decided to do was not done in an instant. He took time to think through the process. He was not being controlled by his emotions. The word “thought” means “to think, to consider, and to ponder,” but it comes from a word which means “passion.” He was not some heartless person who made a decision, and it was done. He was passionately thinking about the situation because the ramifications of what he was going to do were going to affect many other people.
This was a tremendous attribute for Joseph to have. Jesus would see this as He grew up. Joseph would not just “fly of the handle” at someone. He was most likely patient and longsuffering. He would take time to think about the situation in order to make the right decision. Joseph was disciplined in his thoughts because it all goes back to him being a just man, one who was declared righteous by God. Joseph knew he needed grace from God, and because of this, he did not react hastily.
Joseph’s commission from God was that he was going to be one of the two people to raise the Lord Jesus, the One who wrote the Law, under the Law. His commission was to teach God incarnate the Law of the Lord and to demonstrate how to live a submissive, righteous life. He was to guide the Creator of the universe in delighting himself in the Law of the Lord. His commission meant He would teach His Lord how to pray.
The angel says, “Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife.” If the angel is telling him to not be afraid in taking Mary as his wife, we could surmise he was afraid. However, the angel tells him to not be afraid, “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” He should not be afraid because this was all according to the plan of God.
“And she will bring forth a Son, an you shall call His name Jesus.” Joseph was told the two things couples contemplate probably more than anything else—what gender will the baby be, and what the child’s name will be. God was very direct and very detailed concerning the birth of His Son and the responsibility of those who would be involved in His life. God was specific, not just so He could pass information along, but He was specific because He demands obedience. His name was to be Jesus to identify His entire reason and purpose for being born—“for He will save His people from their sins.”
In verse 24 Joseph wakes up from his sleep, fully aware of the dream he has just had. And what does he do? He “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife.” Joseph’s concern was obedience to the will and word of God.
His concern was not only for obedience, but also for truth. He knew what people would say, so he made a choice. Notice the end of verse 25. He “did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.” Mary was a virgin and she conceived, and Joseph was adamant about the truth. If he were to have marital relations with her before Jesus was born, it would have ended the talk. The people would have assumed he was the father. But he keeps her a virgin until after Jesus is born. The truth of the doctrine of the virgin birth was a major concern for him. He was more concerned about this fact than his own desires. He was a young man who had self-control, because the reputation of his wife and of his adopted son meant more to him than his own.
Joseph may have been the forgotten one, yet hopefully no longer. His faith, his righteousness before God, his thoughtfulness, his mercy, his concern for obedience to the will of God, and his concern for truth should be admired and imitated. Truly, he was chosen by God. Certainly, he was the ideal father who was to raise the Messiah.